Sussex County Under-18s League Cup final: Crawley Wasps 3-1 Worthing Town
Profligate finishing and a crucial half-time tactical change transformed what was looking like another fine night for the underdog and instead secured a cup victory for double-chasing Crawley Wasps.
The league leaders were under the cosh for most of the first half, susceptible to the pace and almost telepathic understanding of Worthing’s chief goal threats, Charlotte Hoskins and Dulcie Elder.
But they rode out the storm, grateful to reach half-time on level terms, and then regrouped, reshaped and piled pressure on their admirable opponents.
In the end, the dead-ball skills of Louise Brooks proved the difference. But manager Alan Dunt’s formation change was instrumental in creating the attacking pressure that gave her the opportunity to exploit Worthing’s defensive hesitancy.
Crawley, who need Hangleton Rangers to slip up in their final game to clinch the league title, had already beaten Worthing – who finished bottom of the five-team division – three times this season, scoring 13 goals in the process.
But you would not have known that from the first-half display, where the favourites looked a little nervous and were more inclined towards hurried clearances that just invited pressure from a more fluent Worthing side.
Their twin goal threats, Hoskins and Elder, who have scored 23 of Worthing’s 25 goals between them this season, caused Crawley untold problems at the back, their mutual understanding enabling them to switch defence into attack with one instinctive first-time ball behind the defenders.
Wasps had edged the opening exchanges, their attacking fulcrum, Rebekah Dunt, reaching a long ball ahead of the Worthing goalkeeper, Caroline Lelliott, and firing in an inviting cross. But with top scorer Emily Robinson unavailable for the final, not for the first time there was nobody to cash in.
But the tide turned as Hoskins and Elder locked on to the same wavelength and served notice of the torrid 45 minutes Crawley’s defence would suffer.
Eloise Mizen combined well down the right with Elder and signalled the start of a spell of danger for the Wasps. The ball was worked back to Elder, who drilled a tempting ball to the onrushing Hoskins, but her first-time strike lacked power – if not accuracy – and Hannah Sillince held the shot comfortably.
Worthing forced a string of corners as the half approached the midway point, but there was no end-product – something that was to come back to haunt them.
In a rare counter-attack, Dunt struck a snapshot straight at Lelliott. But most of the action was at the other end.
Worthing were playing smart, attractive football through the midfield, where Chloe Johnson was at the centre of almost everything.
Elder, played in by a great ball from her strike partner, saw her fierce shot well saved by Sillince; then in an almost identical move, she fired just wide.
Elder almost returned the favour a couple of minutes later when she carried the ball from her own half and drove through the Crawley midfield before threading a pass towards Hoskins, but it was cut out just before it reached her.
Crawley defenders Ashleigh Miller and Alicia Haworth were being kept busy by the movement and pace of the Worthing strikers, but generally acquitted themselves well.
Yet it looked only a matter of time before their fragile defensive line would be breached.
Then came the first of two stark warnings before half-time which Worthing’s failure to heed in the second would cost them dearly.
On 35 minutes, the Wasps won a free-kick 30 yards out, which Brooks struck well. The ball bounced sharply in front of Lelliott, who did well to turn it away for a corner.
Ten minutes later, Brooks took another, closer to 40 yards from goal. The high bounce again surprised Lelliott, who fumbled it, then fell on the ball before it could cross the line.
It would have been cruel on Worthing if either of those chances had led to a goal after they had dominated so much of the first half.
But that lack of a goal to reflect their performance would have been worrying their manager, Derek McCoubrey, as half-time approached – especially as they spurned yet another chance right on the whistle when Elder’s shot struck the angle of post and bar.
Crawley had many lessons to absorb during the half-time break, and the resulting changes almost paid immediate dividends when Dunt, who was a constant thorn in Worthing’s side throughout the match, found Flo Jackson down the flank.
Her cross found Brooks in space on the edge of the six-yard box, but she mis-kicked badly and the gilt-edged chance went begging.
Just six minutes into the second half, Crawley were ahead – and it was another Brooks free-kick that did the trick.
There was a sense of inevitability that her kick, much closer to goal than either of the first-half near-misses, would beat Lelliott’s despairing reach and sail straight in.
It must have felt like a body-blow to Worthing after having so much possession in the first half. But to their credit, they moved up a gear, with Johnson excelling in midfield and Sabrina Ford proving a genuine threat down the right, as Elder switched to a more central role.
Crawley had reinforced their back line, with Madeline Burnage providing extra cover, and Dunt also moved his daughter, Rebekah, farther up the pitch, alongside Rachel Steer, to provide a more sustained attacking threat.
The extra defensive cover helped the Wasps survive more pressure, again created by Johnson, who was having a significant influence on the game.
And they were proving dangerous on the break, illustrated by Dunt’s fine run from the halfway line. She outpaced the entire Worthing defence, and as the keeper came out, her low shot rebounded back off the post.
Even then, she was quickest to react, gathering the loose ball but firing wide.
After another Brooks free-kick again gave the Worthing defenders the jitters, Dunt broke away once more, but with no attacking support, her cross-shot was bundled to safety.
With 10 minutes to go, Worthing gave away another free-kick in a dangerous position, near the right touchline. Brooks’ superb delivery was met by Siobhan Miller, who headed it beyond Lelliott.
The goal should have killed off plucky Worthing, but they just stepped up their game. Hoskins’ clever back-heeled flick sent Ford away down the right, and her dangerous cross was cleared for a corner.
From Elder’s kick, Johnson’s first-time shot was well saved by Sillince.
And in the 85th minute their spirited response was rewarded when Johnson did brilliantly to keep hold of the ball in the Crawley area and sent over a superb cross that Elder nodded home at the far post.
But just as Worthing sensed a way back into the game, they were killed off by yet another Brooks free-kick.
This time there was no bounce, but Lelliott let the high ball slip through her hands and into the goal for a soft third.
In the end, Worthing were undone by their failure to capitalise when they were on top and then their tendency to give away free-kicks when put under sustained pressure.
But they played a big part in an entertaining and high-quality final that provided Sussex women’s football with massive reassurance about the next generation of talent that is coming through.
Dunt was a relieved manager at the final whistle after watching his side survive a first-half battering.
He told Sent Her Forward: “I was nervous before the game because our top scorer, Emily Robinson, was unavailable, and we only had one sub.
“I felt we got the shape wrong in the first half and had to weather the storm a bit.
“Fortunately, their scorer (Elder) couldn’t score from two or three one-on-ones, and that was a significant part of the game because it gave our girls belief.
“I played a diamond [formation] in the first half, but I switched to 4-3-3 in the second. Maddie Burnage had been playing in the middle, but I put her on the flanks, and their two (strikers Hoskins and Elder) were not so effective.”
His opposite number, Derek McCoubrey, rued those first-half misses. “We felt we were the better team in the first half. We just didn’t quite finish when we needed to,” he said.
He said it was not a tactical decision that Elder should move in from the flank in the second half to play more centrally alongside Hoskins. “They tend to decide it between them,” he said.
“But I’m absolutely proud of them. I still think we were very unlucky to lose 3-1. It was three free-kicks that did it. Our goalkeeper is not the tallest, but she made some good saves, too.”
Now Crawley must wait to see whether their title rivals, Hangleton, win their final league game on Sunday to force a play-off for the league title.
Either way, it signals the end of an era for the team, many of whom have played for Dunt since they were 10.
Some are likely to form the core of a new development side, which the club hope to establish to bridge the gap between youth and adult first-team football.
And the manager revealed: “I’m not sure I’m going to carry on next season.” If this proves to be his swansong, a cup and possible league title are not a bad way to go out.
Sent Her Forward player of the match: Chloe Johnson (Worthing Town)
Outshone in the first half by her team-mates Hoskins and Elder, Johnson seemed to grow in confidence as the size of her team’s challenge grew. She controlled the midfield in the second half, showing poise on the ball and great skill and strength to outwit her opponents.
Crawley’s Rebekah Dunt also deserves praise for carrying her team’s attacking threat almost single-handedly in the first half and providing the momentum in the second that clinched victory.